Congress to Iran: Drop Dead

About six weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the election of new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. I said it was precisely the sort of opportunity that Barack Obama's administration had been looking for back in 2009, but I was pretty sure the United States and Iran would find a way to squander it. Here's one paragraph from that post, dated June 17, 2013:

Back in Washington, any attempt at a serious rapprochement will also have to overcome relentless opposition not only from AIPAC and the other major groups in the Israel lobby, but also from Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system doesn't reward patience, and Obama has not shown himself to be especially bold or courageous when it comes to foreign policy. Indeed, he has yet to take and stick to any foreign-policy position that requires him to buck powerful political forces at home. By the time his finger-in-the-wind approach to diplomacy has run its course, the opportunity for a new approach to Iran may be lost, thereby reinforcing the Iranian belief that the only thing the United States will accept is the end of the Islamic Republic, and strengthening the American conviction that even reformist Iranian leaders are beyond the pale.

It's a bit too soon to say, "I told you so," but so far my initial prediction is on track. Although Rouhani has appointed a series of moderate officials (many associated with former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani), softened Iranian rhetoric about Israel somewhat, and pledged to seek the path of "détente," we still have little idea how the Obama administration intends to respond. I'm not even sure who is taking the lead in figuring that out. In the meantime, hawks in the United States -- led by the always-helpful lobbyists at AIPAC -- are already doing everything they can to derail a possible rapprochement.

Unfortunately, they can always count on the help of a timorous and craven Congress, including a number of prominent "progressive" Democrats. Just last week, the House passed H.R. 850, an AIPAC-sponsored resolution tightening sanctions for the umpteenth time. The bill was called the "Nuclear Iran Prevention Act," but as Paul Pillar blogged on National Interest's website, a more honest title would be the "Nuclear Iran Promotion Act." The vote was 400-20 (with 378 co-sponsors!), and I'm sorry to say that my own representative, Joe Kennedy III, wasn't exactly a "profile in courage" on this issue. Of course, he had plenty of company.

And now 76 supine Senators are sending Obama one of those stern AIPAC-drafted letters warning him to keep up the pressure. Negotiating with Iran is OK, they concede, provided that any discussions are backed up by the constant threat of military force. Never mind that the United States has been threatening force and conducting various forms of covert action against Iran for years, and Iran hasn't said "uncle" yet. Never mind that Congress has repeatedly called for regime change in Tehran (now there's a confidence-building measure!), and Iran has responded by building more centrifuges. Never mind that Iran has said all along that it won't be bullied into concessions. Never mind the obvious fact that threats of military force are a pretty silly way to convince a much weaker country that it doesn't need some sort of deterrent. And please ignore the fact that America's key allies in Europe and even conservative publications like the Economist are urging the Obama administration to seize this and give Rouhani a serious chance. So is Bloomberg News.

I'm still fairly confident that Obama and the White House have little or no interest in another Middle East war. The State Department, Defense Department, and intelligence services aren't pushing for a war that could only delay but not eliminate Iran's nuclear potential either. And I'm 100 percent sure that the United States should engage Iran's new government seriously and patiently to see whether a deal can be struck. I even suspect that most of the senators and representatives who voted for or signed those silly but dangerous documents last week know all this too. But nobody ever went broke betting on the spinelessness of elected representatives in Congress, especially on just about anything concerning the Middle East.


National Security

Chuck Hagel Is Looking for a Few New Ideas

According to Thom Shanker of the New York Times, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is "looking for a few good ideas." Translated: The Defense Department is under a lot of budget pressure (from the sequester and from broader fiscal realities), so he's looking for smart ways to cut the budget without jeopardizing U.S. security.

If Hagel is really looking for some "outside-the-box" thinking on this important issue, then I've got three suggestions for him. First, he won't make real progress without examining the fundamentals of U.S. grand strategy: What America's real interests are, what are the different ways it can advance or protect them, and what are the costs, benefits, and trade-offs among different commitments? Trying to maintain all U.S. present commitments on a shoestring makes it much more likely that the country will in fact defend nothing very well.

Second, in addition to directing the Defense Department bureaucracy and the uniformed services to work hard on it, he ought to convene a "Team B" of outside experts to brainstorm the problem too. And if he needs new ideas, he ought to populate that Team B with knowledgeable people whose views aren't warped by long service inside the Washington bubble or by years spent inside the Pentagon itself. Instead, this group should be composed mostly of people who don't work for defense contractors and who don't depend on Defense Department consulting contracts for their livelihoods. I'd also exclude people at think tanks that receive a lot of defense-industry dollars and anyone who has ever spoken at the Aspen Security Forum. (I'm not dissing any of these organizations, by the way; I'm just saying that it's not where I'd look to find alternatives to the conventional wisdom).

In short, I'd be looking for smart academics and independent thinkers, like MIT's Barry Posen or Cindy Williams, Dartmouth College's Daryl Press, or the Cato Institute's Christopher Preble. Throw in Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives. A creative, thoughtful journalist like James Fallows and an iconoclast like Michael Lind would be good additions too. Hagel should also encourage this group to consult with insiders or seasoned Washington veterans -- such as Brent Scowcroft, Steve Clemons, Colin Powell, Gordon Adams (an FP columnist), etc. -- to make sure that their recommendations aren't just pie in the sky.

The point is not that such people would necessarily come up with the best ideas; the purpose of this sort of exercise is to ensure that a wide range of possibilities gets considered and that well-worn shibboleths get challenged.

Third, Hagel should remind everyone involved in this process who they are working for. The name of the organization in question is the "U.S. Department of Defense." It is not the "Department of Imperial Power Projection," "Department of World Order Maintenance," the "Department of Democracy Promotion," or the "Department of Regime Change and Global Pest Control." My dictionary defines "defense" as "the action of resisting attack," and the focus of its efforts ought to be on that fundamental goal. Weaning the United States away from the belief that its security is enhanced by constantly searching for monsters to destroy in faraway lands (a task the country has been doing rather badly in recent years) would be a major achievement. But it's not one the United States is likely to accomplish if the task is left solely to the usual experts and the existing institutions.